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Panama Canal Transit

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
June 12th, 2017

We are very excited to announce a new series of articles in Currents for 2017: Memories of a Circumnavigation. This series will recount the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their  1997 outbound Caribbean track.


In early 1999, we arrived at the Panama Canal, having spent the previous couple of years making our way from The British Virgin Islands via the Island Chain, Venezuela and Columbia to Panama. Enroute we had upgraded, and modified Argonauta I from a basic coastal cruiser to a bluewater capable vessel, with all the systems essential to a circumnavigation: rigging, sails, electrics, electronics, steering, and support systems such as a watermaker and freezer. Perhaps as importantly, in the two or so years taken to reach the Canal, we had gained confidence in both the yacht and ourselves and felt ready to undertake a serious ocean passage.

February 27, 1999, we arrived in Puerto Cristóbal, the Atlantic terminus for the Panama Canal.  We anchored about a mile off the North/South path to the Gatun Locks, the first set for a south bound transit.  Peculiarities of geography result in a North/South axis of the Canal, not East/West as one might  imagine.  The three Gatun Locks will raise Argonauta I 85 feet to Gatun Lake.  It is 31 miles from the Gatun Locks across the lake to the Pedro Miguel lock.  Here we enter Miraflores Lake, where we will leave the boat for a month at the Pedro Miguel Boat Club, while we fly to Canada for a brief visit. At that time, one could opt for a mid-passage stay at the Boat Club, which was an R & R fixture for the American Military contingent at the Canal. It is now closed. Once we returned, we would do final provisioning and down lock into the Pacific via the Miraflores Locks.

Pedro Miguel Yacht Club

At our anchorage, Area AF@, known as the AFlats@, there were about 50 yachts, mostly awaiting transit or resting from a recent northbound transit.  To our surprise, we found Area AF@ quite pleasant, as it is well away from the port, with an undeveloped shoreline studded with palms.  It is a short dinghy ride to the Panama Canal Yacht Club, the gathering place at the time for all yachties. Now yachts gather at nearby Shelter Bay Marina. We planned to use an agent for all formalities as opposed to running around to various offices as most yachties do.  That is because we could get a suitable transit date more easily, as well as obtaining the necessary clearance for a mid-transit stop over. While we awaited transit arrangement in Cristóbal, we had the sails maintained and stocked nonperishable provisions.  Our two 25 gallon Nauta flex tanks secured to the deck provided excellent reserve tankage for diesel.  With 50 gallons on deck plus two 6 gallon jerry jugs, we arrived here from Cartagena after 7 weeks with a full main tank (50 gal) plus one full jerry jug.  (Fuel transfer was by siphoning).  The 100 gallon-plus capacity gave us a motoring range of about 700 NM. For the transit, the now empty flex tanks were folded up and stowed, to be filled at Pedro Miguel. With a bit of preventive maintenance, we were ready to head into the Pacific. We hoped for a smooth Canal transit.

Friday, March 5, we learned that we were scheduled to transit beginning at 0530 hours Saturday morning.  I had earlier recruited four line handlers to manage our four, 125 foot lines needed to stabilize the boat in the locks.  All the line handlers intended to transit their vessels within a week or so and wanted firsthand experience in the Canal.  So our crew assembled onboard Argonauta I at 0515 hrs.  Over sticky buns and coffee, we provided a boat check-out for our line handlers and then we set up the lines. I had earlier acquired four tires, which I wrapped in garbage bags as extra fenders.  That made it 6 fenders per side and I kept spare fenders available on deck for emergency use.  Ideas from our line handlers resulted in our fixing a snatch block at each line position to accommodate the up to 70 degree angle we expected the lines to reach, as they are drawn up to the top of the lock some 40 to 50 feet above.  Also, we ran the crucial aft lines forward to the Genoa winches to overcome anticipated extreme forces.

Line handlers

Our Pilot was delivered by the Pilot Boat at 0600h.  He checked and approved our setup and advised we would be transiting as a three vessel nest.  Appledore III, a 60 foot classic schooner would be centre, I chose to be on the starboard and a 50 foot Costa Rican Hatteras smoke pot, Nauti Lady, ended up on the port side.  At the time, the name did not have any significance, but later events showed she was aptly named! We joined up short of the Gatun Locks, secured bow, stern and spring lines and entered the lock.  The configuration meant that only our two starboard long lines would be run to the lock, while our port side was given over to securing to Appledore IIINauti Lady of course, had their port long lines to the lock.  Appledore III had no lines to the lock.  Thus transformed into one vessel, the Panama Canal Pilot on Appledore III would navigate and call power changes for all three vessels.

We entered the lock behind a huge, multi-thousand ton freighter, the lock line handlers above threw down the monkey-fisted pickup lines, which were secured to the boat lines so that they could be fixed to bollards at the top of the lock.  Tension was taken up by line handlers on the two outboard yachts, lock doors were closed and water entered to raise us up about 40 feet in the first of the three Gatun Locks.. In the first few minutes there was a major emergency! Nauti Lady‘s port stern lock line parted and seconds later their port bow lock line also parted.  Instantly, we began to close on the starboard lock wall. With us on the inside, the possibility of major damage to Argonauta I was only seconds away! The nest was now heading bow in to the wall, so I immediately came in with full power and full left rudder. I was able to rotate the nest parallel to the wall and slow our movement towards it.  At the same time, I ordered all extra fenders placed by hand on our starboard side.  Appledore III‘s crew leapt over with more fenders and with my use of power, we soft landed against the sidewall of the lock. Line handlers pushed against the lock side to hold us off.  While fenders were completely compressed, the tires provided minimal separation. Our lower port spreader came within 4 to 6 inches of the wall.

Uplocking

Thanks to prompt action on everyone’s part, we suffered no damage to either hull or rigging.  We later learned that Nauti Lady‘s lines had been rented.  They were hemp, not nylon and obviously rotted.  Appledore III provided two of their lines for the remaining locks.  We passed through these two without further incident, entering Gatun Lake 85 feet above sea level at 1000 hours.  There, the nest untied and proceeded individually.  We sailed and motored the 31 odd miles to the Pedro Miguel Lock. Our pilot directed us via a shortcut called the Banana Cut.  We reached the Pedro Miguel locks at 1400 hrs.  Here yachts enter ahead of the large ship.

Poor communication between the lockmaster and our pilot resulted in a close squeeze between the bow of the freighter and the lock entrance.  As the freighter was slowly closing the gap, we found ourselves in a nerve rending sprint to enter the lock.  I was too close to abort the entry! We squeaked in to cheers from those on shore and the odd scream from those on board!  Once in the lock, we slowed, tied to a tugboat, and down locked into Miraflores Lake.  We docked at the Boat Club by 1600 hours, more than a little relieved to be unscathed. Once secured, we left for Canada.

While in Canada and just two days prior to departure, we received news that Argonauta I had been damaged due to tug wash. Her mast had tangled with a neighboring ketch’s triatic stay, cleaning off our wind transducer, masthead light, one spinnaker sheave and damaging the relative wind indicator. I was able to source replacement parts before we returned, (I delayed our return flight by 2 days) which obviated hours of long distance calls.

We arrived back at the yacht April 29. Damage to the mast head was as reported. Evidently, tug wash caused an out of synch roll.  I had checked conflict possibilities carefully before we departed, but did not put the necessary thought to danger posed by a triatic stay in an out of synch roll caused by reflected wash from shore. This reportedly happened only once in the nearly seven weeks we were away! It was super bad luck but not a show stopper. With replacement items enroute, I was hopeful repairs could be completed in a week or two.  Excellent local support meant we were soon repaired and fueled up ready to down-lock into the Pacific. This we did without incident on Sunday, May 16, 1999.

Once in saltwater, we dropped off line handlers in Balboa and headed for Taboga Island just north of the ship anchorage. There we completed a final systems check before heading for the Galapagos. We were on our own to Australia. Lots of adventure was ahead.

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